16 May 2024

The world is fast-paced – but government is slow off the mark


A genie offers you three wishes. What do you do? World peace, end poverty, end climate change, infinite wealth, true love, fix the housing crisis. The possible answers and urgent problems are endless.

The changes that policymakers will need to make to keep up with the opportunities and challenges of tech is as long as the problem list for the genie. Rather than a limit of three wishes, we have a limited number of civil servants, a limited amount of political capacity and limited parliamentary time. Government can try to work magic on one or two items, but there’s an ever-increasing number of questions, from AI to battery power in transport to blockchain to copyright to cyber to data to employment law to election law to electric scooters. That’s just a partial list from A to E. Within a year, we’ll be facing slightly different questions, and in another year, different questions again. How do we pick which problems to solve?

There are three main reasons technological change can be difficult for government.

The first reason is that this is uncharted territory where risks and opportunities are speculative ones and both action and inaction come with dangers. It can be difficult to find the time to consider speculative questions, or find political cover for innovative solutions.

The second reason is that it can be tricky to find and keep the people with the necessary skills because talent is pricey and specialised, and the good public servants can find that they can earn twice their salary or more in the private sector. Job security, a good pension and the opportunity for public service are tempting things – but a bank will accept none of them as collateral for a mortgage.

And the third reason is that opportunities and threats often span established siloes. Put simply, groundbreaking transport or healthcare solutions involve innovation intersecting with existing behemoths like the Department of Transport or Department of Health. And it can get more complicated than that.

Take a question like the future of work – what happens when increasing numbers take on portfolio careers, work remotely, and when borders don’t matter for business? Tax questions will fall under the remit of the Treasury. Employment law under Work and Pensions, skills under Education, and immigration to the Home Office. Attempts to span this web have not gotten very far. The Future of Work Review was promised, reported then vanished.

The Employment Bill was promised five years ago and we’re still waiting. Put simply, we often lack talent, time and co-ordination. When primary legislation is needed for a policy change, the shortage of parliamentary time is an additional issue as the government recovers from Covid and Brexit.

What all this means is that as well as being slow at dealing with risks, like the consequences of allowing children to live lives online, we miss opportunities.

Tech offers an incredible number of policy solutions: remote monitoring of health at home to save lives and millions for the NHS; an opportunity to work with rather than against the AI revolution to save jobs in the UK; innovative battery-powered transport like Very Light Rail or electric scooters. Electric scooters may not move very fast, but they move faster than the legislation that categorises them like a car as requiring tax and an MOT. Because that’s impossible for a scooter, they are effectively illegal on the roads or pavements. Their cousins, electric cycles, are legal because they are pedal-powered which has a different categorisation. None of this makes intuitive sense – but the change to methods of travel has moved faster than the law.

The above ideas have pros and cons. The reason businesses can move much faster than government is that they can take risks, try and fail. Many changes are bad changes and the government shouldn’t move too fast – but in too many areas we run the risk of not moving at all.

So, is there a solution? Well, there’s an old addendum to that story about the genie. Why not wish for 1,000 wishes?

In 2010, David Cameron’s government established the Behavioural Insights Team, known better as the Nudge Unit, which worked cross-department to identify challenges and opportunities and test and trial ideas. We should do the same for innovation and tech: bring tech policy specialists with industry and academic connections into a specialist trial unit inside Number 10. They would work alongside operational specialists, to identify the opportunities and threats and trial solutions, or work out where primary legislative change could be added in to existing Bills going through Parliament.

Where we have a clear resource issue, as well as prioritisation of immediate opportunities and threats like AI, we should also be pressing for structural solutions and ideas that will enable us to cope with the fast-changing policy environment. Because tech won’t slow down – it will only speed up.

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Frances Lasok is a political professional and writer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.